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Shawn Vestal: Mayor’s street plan has a few potholes

The private sector is always more efficient than government.

Right? Always, no matter what, forevermore, amen.

So, for example, if you wanted to get your streets fixed – your bumpy Maple and Walnut streets, your Northwest Boulevards – you would naturally hire lean private-sector panthers rather than lumpy, overpaid city employees, right?

This is the path that Mayor David Condon’s administration is pursuing, declining to hire workers for a list of paid-for, City Council-approved projects in order to put the work out for bid. This means that most of the projects funded for this summer won’t be done this year, according to the volunteer citizens board that oversees the program.

Administration officials say the board’s overestimating how much work will be delayed. And even that work will still get done – in 2013.

What’s a year, give or take, when you’re waiting for superior service?

I couldn’t get Condon on the phone this week, but he said in March that the decision to go private on a list of roadwork budgeted for this year was done to answer the crucial question: “How can we get the best service for citizens?”

Watch columnist Shawn Vestal discuss this column on KHQ

City residents have been paying a new $20 car tab tax since fall 2011. The money is dedicated to repairing streets and improving road safety all over town – a separate pot of money from the general street maintenance. A volunteer board makes recommendations about how to spend it to the governing board – essentially the City Council.

For 2012, a list of $2.5 million in Transportation Benefit District projects was approved. But the administration balked at the hiring part of the work. The package would have included 10 full-time employees and 14 seasonal ones. Condon’s interim public utilities director, Gerry Gemmill, said that with another city budget deficit looming, “We want to make absolutely sure we don’t embed FTEs into the system.”

City Administrator Theresa Sanders echoed that understandable concern. She also noted that when the project list arrived on her desk – loaded and ready to go – the administration was in its first weeks on the job, and there were a lot of unknowns and complications surrounding the program’s first year. She said she didn’t necessarily doubt the conclusions that the volunteers and elected officials had already made, in consultation with the Street Department, but she also wasn’t persuaded they were correct.

The board said, for example, it would be cheaper for the city to hire its own crews to pursue a long-term program of repairs than to bid out projects one at a time.

“I’m not convinced,” Sanders said. “I’m prepared to be convinced.”

Gemmill and Sanders both emphasized that hiring full-time workers for seasonal projects might leave the city with too many employees in the winter. Assuming there is no useful work to be found for them, then why not simply hire 24 seasonal workers and get the projects started? Surely, the administration could have just done that, couldn’t it? Just be all businesslike and flexible and stuff?

Gemmill said he’d be “open” to that. He said this on three occasions when I asked him whether the administration couldn’t have just made this decision on its own – that they were open to other proposals, simply passive vessels waiting to be filled with acceptable ideas.

Sanders said that seasonal hiring is still on the table for certain types of tab-tax projects – the crack-sealing projects, which attempt to catch smaller problems before they turn into big ones. She also said that street officials think they’ll be able to get more of the work done this year than the citizens board figures, and that the city will end up with the ability to make a direct comparison between contracted projects and in-house projects.

Sanders gamely took my questions, and insisted that the decision to go private was not born out of an ideological insistence the private sector is always superior – no matter what the actual circumstances.

City Council President Ben Stuckart isn’t so sure about that. In this case, he and others argue, the people of the city are being served poorly by a pro-business pretense to serve them better. The money is a continual source of revenue, he says – it’s not going away. Hiring city workers was the recommendation of the citizens board, in part because they figured it will be cheaper and offer long-term benefits.

But even if you don’t accept that – if you insist that it’s just bad, on the face of it, to hire people to provide services that are already paid for – that doesn’t answer why the administration didn’t simply hire seasonal workers and put them to work.

“They could have chosen any option they wanted, and they chose to go to the private sector for all of it,” Stuckart said.

A pragmatic leader – as Condon has sometimes appeared to be – might view the ruts and cracks and crumbling patches and potholes and conclude that the best course is the most immediate one. That the “best service for citizens” involves fixing their streets now and figuring out the not-so-difficult problem of how to do it.

That’s what a business would do – at least one of those businesses that are always being idealized by comparison to government. A business – especially one that you already hired and paid $2.5 million – would fix the streets now.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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